“Reading the Scriptures with the Church Fathers” by Christopher Hall

“Learning to read the Bible through the eyes of Christians from a different time and place will readily reveal the distorting effect of our own cultural, historical, linguistic, philosophical and, yes, even theological lenses. This is not to assert that the fathers did not have their own warped perspectives and blind spots.

It is to argue, however, that we will not arrive at perspective and clarity regarding our own strengths and weaknesses if we refuse to look beyond our own theological and hermeneutical noses. God has been active throughout the church’s history and we rob ourselves of the Holy Spirit’s gifts if we refuse to budge beyond the comfort zone of our own ideas…

Many postmodern interpreters doubt the possibility of genuinely entering another’s world. I disagree, but realize the task is a formidable one, requiring certain dispositions on the part of the voyager. Foremost among these is humility– a willingness to admit that our own self-estimation is often inflated and exaggerated. We must be convinced that the church fathers, people who spoke differently and lived strangely– at least at first glance– actually have something they can teach us.

Our ability to learn from them will largely be determined by our willingness to remain quiet and simply listen, perhaps listen more fervently than we have for a long time. In turn, our willingness to listen will be influenced by our expectations, hopes, prejudices and presuppositions. Some of us, especially those unfamiliar with the world of patristic thought, will have to trust the testimony of many who have come before us or have recently discovered the riches of patristic exegesis…

Listening will not come easily. We will struggle to overcome deep-set suspicions. Past prejudices will need silencing. Some of us will be tempted to react too quickly to perceived error. We will need to familiarize ourselves with new words, themes and concepts. And yet the effort will prove rewarding if we persevere…

My counsel is to surround your entrance into the world of the fathers with humility, self-awareness, a listening ear, prayer and a sense of humor. It is better to chuckle at the periodic patristic quirk than to allow our self-righteous anger to wall off their insights. We are all prone to error. We are all quick to spot the exegetical log in our brother or sister’s eye.

We are all apt to be blind to our own weaknesses in reading Scripture. We are all hermeneutically disabled in one area or another.How can we hope to understand the Bible if we needlessly cut ourselves off from our own community’s reflection and history? We need one another and each other’s insights, past and present, if we are to understand the Bible. The desert fathers were especially sensitive to the necessity of humility and community if one was to comprehend Scripture…

We will occasionally find the fathers infuriating, dense and perplexing. At other times we will wonder, Why have I never seen this in the Bible before? Why was I never taught this? How could I have been so blind? In their best moments the fathers will lead us into a renewed sense of wonder, awe and reverence for God and the gospel. Through the fathers’ influence, prayer and worship may well become more frequent companions to our exegetical study.

And though greater familiarity with the fathers will periodically magnify their own weaknesses, our own blind spots will be much more clear to us because of the time we have spent with figures such as Augustine, Chrysostom, Athanasius, Jerome, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil, Ambrose or Gregory the Great. What are the blind spots in our culture or our own lives that need to be exposed to the light of ancient wisdom?…

Simply put, reading the fathers can be surprisingly relevant for the contemporary Christian because the fathers tend to grasp facets of the gospel that modern sensibilities overlook. They hear music in Scripture to which we remain tone-deaf. They frequently emphasize truths that contemporary Christians clearly need to remember.”

–Christopher Hall, Reading the Scriptures with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998), 35-38.

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Filed under Bible, Christian Theology, Christology, Church Fathers, Church History, Quotable Quotes, Reading

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